I am buried in seafood lightly lacquered in brown sauce and heaped high upon thin, crispy, chow mein-like wheat noodles. Dramatic shapes and angles collide at random: ribbed, mandoline-cut carrots; bushy, halved broccoli florets; round-edge button mushrooms; thick scallop wheels; tubular squid strips curled and scored with a crosshatch pattern; green-lipped mussel shells protruding with their soft cargo like miniature versions of docked, open-domed alien spacecraft.
Textures predictably contrast from chewy (mussels and imitation crab) to chewier (squid) to lobster-like (prawns) to buttery (scallops) to fibrously crisp (veggies) to full-on crunchy (the hard noodles). Hoisin sauce adds a faint sweetness and touch of mud coloring to a chicken stock's foundational flavoring and opaque sheen.
Nothing is too sticky, too cloying or too airport-kiosk-stir-fry-esque. There's no MSG to counterfeit the umami, and for a brown-sauce dish stocked with so much seafood, it's remarkably light.
This, friends, is the Mi Xao Don Do Bien ($13.95) from Saigon Grill's 160-dish-deep menu, updated since last month's reopen in this former Subs & Such spot.
In December, after nearly 10 years at 31st Street and Colorado Avenue, Hui Jo wasn't able to renew her lease there. The chatty and abundantly sweet owner initially considered closing for good, and actually forfeited her liquor license (meaning no hooch currently). But it's clear that she and her equally charming 16-year-old son Andy, who's helped wait tables since he was a small boy, belong in the business.
Faithful clientele seem to cross town partly for their wide smiles and playful banter. And the new digs do look great, with beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid block prints adorning beige walls, and a 50-gallon fish tank and Maneki-neko (waving-cat figurine) brightening a front counter area.
But there are other "chef specialties" on the menu that make a compelling case to dine, irrespective of the warm staff. The roasted duck ($16.95/half, $28.95/whole), bathed in its own brown sauce, texturally fluctuates between crispy skin and sinuous meat with varying pockets of succulent fat, garnished with carrot strands and cilantro leaves.
Soups are also standouts: The egg drop and hot-and-sour (included with $5.95 to $6.25 lunch specials) are both much better than average. And the Mong Cua for two ($6.95), a viscous, clear, foamy broth thickened by egg flour, elegantly highlights the subtlety of grated white asparagus complemented by chopped white and green onions, shrimp and krab with a whisper of sesame oil in the finish.
For apps, porky, crisp, pan-seared pot stickers (listed as fried dumplings, $4.95) and Vietnamese rice-paper-and-pork egg rolls (three for $6.25) served with wet lettuce leaves and cilantro for wrapping are both infallible.
The Mongolian Beef at lunch ($5.95) sports good wok's breath, ranking perfectly standard. We did, however, miss fresh mint and more generous peanuts on our shrimp and egg roll bun (rice noodle bowl, $8.95), which otherwise was fine in its fishy, nicely under-sweet nuoc cham sauce. That sauce is key to enlivening the Com Suon Nuong ($8.95), grill-striped pork chops that come with a brown-rice option.
Thai iced tea ($2.95) and Café Du Monde iced coffee ($3.50), again because of milder-than-most sweetness, surpass standard fare. And seeing as how most of Saigon Grill's menu does, there should be no concern for its vitality on the east side, its new lease on restaurant life.